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The Talk of ’Toon Town

New Yorker cartoons reflect our changing society
By Cameron Woo, Claudia Kawczynska, November 2008, Updated June 2021

If art is a mirror that reflects our world, then the art of the cartoon is a funhouse mirror—a distorted and comic image of ourselves, taking the smallest seed of truth and twisting it into a hilarious meditation. Cartoons speak simply and directly about the ironies and foolishness of the human dilemma. The comic arts are a kind of pop psychology—delving into a collective id, the cultural funny-bone of society. It is this meshing of comedy and psychology that inspired Anne Alden, a San Francisco cartoonist, dog aficionado and aspiring psychologist, to consider how these three passions might intertwine as she was casting about for a PhD dissertation topic.

This idea of tracing human-dog relationships through cartoons began one day while Alden was thumbing through back issues of The New Yorker. She noticed a trend—dog cartoons appeared regularly and seemed to take particular delight in satirizing popular social mores. Intrigued, she visited her local library and spent the day reviewing The New Yorker magazines from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, fascinated by the evolution of the genre. Fifties cartoons showed suburban hounds, those from the ’60s poked fun at counter-cultural canines, and upwardly mobile dogs appeared in the ’80s and ’90s. A light bulb went on in Alden’s head and she began her research project in earnest, parlaying it into a fascinating clinical-psychology thesis.

“I’ve had a ridiculous number of dissertation topics over the years, but this was the first one I really felt passionate about. It also happened to involve data that would be fun to collect and analyze,” Alden admits.

The combination of cartoons and The New Yorker has always been an interesting pairing—the most popular and democratic of art forms and one of America’s most culturally elite periodicals. “The New Yorker is ahead of the curve on social criticism and cultural trends,” says Alden. “And their cartoons and cover art have always been superb—more than a few have taken on a kind of cultural significance or iconic status. Just think of Steinberg’s infamous map of New York City from the ’70s to last year’s “New Yorkistan” map by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz or the popular cartoon of a dog surfing the ’net ... at their best, these cartoons come to represent a generation, a certain collective consciousness of our times.”


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Alden has taken her show on the road: speaking engagements at academic symposiums, drawing big laughs and curtain calls. “It’s lots of fun to be sure, but in the end, I’m mining a very serious idea here. Animals, and dogs in particular, are an integral part of our society-as our society changes, so does our relationship with the animal world, best expressed through the way we live with our pets and in the study of animal behavior,” Alden insists. Her conclusion—that there may be a very thin line between animal and human cognition and consciousness—won’t surprise Bark readers.

The ’20s and ’30s
From The New Yorker’s first publication in 1925, its cartoons have chronicled scenes of everyday life, focusing more on cultural and social issues than on political or world events. In these first two decades, Alden found, cartoons under Harold Ross’s tutelage barely acknowledged the impact of major events, such as the stock market crash and the hardships of the Depression. Instead, the cartoons of this era reflected wild party times, with many stylized portraits of flappers. Dogs were pictured as fashionable ornaments for the wealthy. People were typically shown fussing over dogs—predominantly diminutive breeds like Pekinese and toy Poodles. True to a cultural fascination popularized in the ‘20s, dog shows and dog grooming scenes proliferated. Dogs being pampered by glamorized women typified the sophisticated style of the era.

Alden found that cartoons of the ’30s continued to feature a society at leisure—regardless of the different reality being experienced by a Depression-era nation. People were also shown with many dogs—exuberant consumption perhaps exemplified by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, each of whom owned packs of dogs. (Coolidge’s wife reportedly dressed one of their dogs in an Easter bonnet for parties.) One cartoon showed a man with 10 dogs on leashes, with the caption: “Well, she has her books and I have my dogs.”

Competitive dog shows and an interest in “pure” breeding were also themes in the ’30s. James Thurber especially was the master at poking fun at this trend.

The ’40s and ’50s
Dogs go to war! Gone are the pampered hounds, enter the hero canines. Alden found that over a dozen cartoons—a third of all dog cartoons published in the ’40s—featured a hero St. Bernard rescuing people in the snow. Another cartoon showed a woman volunteering her Dachshund at a recruiting office, saying:”1 thought perhaps he’d be good for crawling under things.” But true to dogs’ more comedic nature, several cartoons pictured scenes of them chasing a military truck, or of MPs looking for a miscreant dog.

The ’50s found that a move to the suburbs and the post-war baby boom coincided with a dramatic increase in pet ownership. Animal rights groups began efforts to protect domestic animals, a concern that actually made its way into the magazine. Several cartoons showed the ASPCA rounding up stray dogs. Interestingly, Alden notes, many cartoons started to depict dogs exhibiting bad behavior: One pictured a dog charging at a postman. And jealousy brewed in Levittown: “Sure, why not, how about a third TV set for the damned dog!”

The ’60s and ’70s
While flower children and leashless dogs frolicked in the streets in the ’60s, the regulation of pets, especially dogs, became stricter. This was particularly true in cities that enacted “pooper scooper” and leash laws.

Alden found that many cartoons, perhaps reflecting society’s inability to rein in its freedom-loving youth, portrayed dogs fighting back: “So, you’ve finally bitten a lawyer.” And mirroring the nascent women’s movement, a theme deconstructing “master” also emerged. One cartoon showed a woman speaking to her dog: “Guess what, Mr. Corbett is going to be our lord and master.”

The ’70s found a resurgent interest in dog cartoons. This was partly influenced by the popularity of the work of George Booth. Beginning in 1969, he started to bring his ineffable stamp to the magazine and has since become one of its most recognizable cartoonists. Booth cartoons often captured the essential character of dogs just acting like dogs. In addition to being known for his psychotic-looking dogs, Booth is also renowned for his portraits of chaotic households with eccentric people with many dogs. “He records their adventures in a very touching way,” says Alden, who once met the cartoonist, “with affection, never ridicule, and always with exacting detail.”

In a humorous parallel to civil rights legislation of the ‘70s, Alden notes, the cartoons showed a similar assertion of rights by dogs—a major change from previous decades. Dogs were most often portrayed talking and behaving like humans. A disgruntled dog painted his own sign: “Beware of Me.” Cartoons also showed dogs having meetings in boardrooms, playing chess with cats and, in one strip, thrusting out a paw and saying to a human: “Shake hands.”

The ’80s and ’90s
Enter the era of upward mobility and intense self-actualization—cartoon dogs were depicted possessing the whole panoply of human emotions (and their foibles), not merely speaking but assuming very human-like roles and conversation. “I’m your pet, but you don’t own me,” reads one caption, while another cartoon shows a dog speaking to a man: “I just want you to know, Ted, that I think you’re a good boy, too.” Dogs wore suits and ties, hammered out business deals and palled around with attorneys—reflecting the era’s obsession with the material world. Cartoonists took particular delight in examining society’s conflicted values and ethics, placing them against traditional canine characteristics—loyalty, trust and faithfulness. “Bad” dog took on new meaning, as dogs practiced a host of human vices-smoking, drinking and corporate crime.

Alden notes that the concept of family changed significantly in the ’80s, a decade with high divorce rates and an increasing number of single-parent families. Pets began to be viewed as important members of the family, given equal or greater status than children. The indulgences of the time were also grist for the “new” family member-a dog nudges his water dish and asks: “This isn’t tap water, is it?” The lifestyle of dogs became a subject of satire itself: Dog walkers, dog runs and high-end dog products first began to appear—“Hey, I’ll let you know when I’m ready to switch to Cycle Four,” a dog holding a food bowl complains to his master.

Alden found that in the ’90s the number of dog cartoons increased significantly, as did many popular bestsellers about the intellectual and emotional lives of dogs. Cartoons showed dogs exhibiting subtleties of complex thinking—ever moving up on the evolutionary ladder. Dogs were frequently depicted having human-like angst. A two-panel cartoon pictured a drowning person yelling, “Lassie, get help!” with the second panel featuring Lassie on a psychiatrist’s couch. Another showed a dog walking alongside his owner, thinking: “It’s always good dog, never great dog.”

Four Legs and a Tail
Is it any wonder that dogs are the cartoonist’s best friend, offering up limitless comedic possibilities? Has there ever been a better straight man than a dog? From pampered pet to loyal companion, our cartoon canines have followed us through the Great Depression, world wars, suburbia and technology—and along the way, learned to walk upright and speed dial. Their evolution is our own. The cartoon archives of The New Yorker show us that social history is often best written simply, with pen and ink, in the form of four legs and a tail.


Image: Fred Moon/Unsplash

Cameron Woo is co-founder of The Bark magazine, and was its Publisher for over two decades. He was also the magazine’s Art Director.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.